RECOMMENDED READING FOR OBAMA…. The Washington Monthly has a feature in our new issue with book recommendations for the new president, with suggestions from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. We’re covering the recommendations in an ongoing series of posts, and here are the last two from our list.
Announcing his heavyweight national security team (most notably Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates), Barack Obama declared, “One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in groupthink and everybody agrees with everything and there’s no discussion and there are not dissenting views.” It might seem bracing that the new president is familiar with the dangers of “groupthink.” But were he to read the 1982 book Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, by the late Irving L. Janis, the psychologist who originally formulated the concept four decades ago, he would learn that the pitfalls that accompany White House crisis decisionmaking are more subtle than lockstep conformity. As Janis’s shrewd melding of political history and group psychology makes clear, John F. Kennedy listened to an outside dissenter (Senator William Fulbright) during the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion and Lyndon Johnson boasted naysayers on his White House staff during the Vietnam escalation. (LBJ, in fact, mockingly referred to Bill Moyers as “Mr. Stop-the-Bombing.”) But the dissenters in these cases were as marginalized as Colin Powell (Mr. Let’s-Wait-for-the-Security-Council) on the eve of the Iraq invasion.
If Obama has time for only forty pages, he should read Janis’s interpretation of the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy, like Obama, entered the White House with a cohesive band of advisers from the campaign, a best-and-brightest veneer to his administration, and a sense of invulnerability from a dizzying political ascent. Janis evokes that era by quoting an unnamed Justice Department official: “It seemed that, with John Kennedy leading us and with all the talent he had assembled, nothing could stop us.”
Most attempts by social scientists to peer into the inner workings of governments are too theoretical, too quantitative, and too mechanistic to be useful outside of an academic seminar room. But Groupthink is far more than a clever compound word — inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 — to signify unanimity among decisionmakers. It is also an enduring book, and remains a cautionary tale of talented Democratic presidents gone awry.
Mindful of the acute demand for Barack Obama to articulate a new ideal of American leadership, I’d first recommend Lincoln at Gettysburg, by Garry Wills. The book commanded a wide audience when it was published in 1992, but it bears reading, or rereading, especially for this moment and this president. Wills elegantly deconstructs both Lincoln and the first eighty-seven years of America’s history to show how words — the right words, on cue — can shape a nation’s core philosophy. The book burns away myth, that Lincoln hastily wrote the Gettysburg speech on an envelope and snubbed his long-winded predecessor, the brilliant nineteenth-century Hellenist Edward Everett. He did neither. In fact, Lincoln drew inspiration from the era’s blossoming Greek revival and the country’s growing “transcendentalist” movement to firmly measure America’s bloody and unfinished experiment in self-governance against a lofty ideal of justice, of an ever-perfecting union.
This was a reach. The famous phrase of grade-school oration — “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” — was the stuff of sharp controversy in its day. By reaching back to Jefferson’s language of “self-evident” equality in the Declaration, Lincoln leapt over the pragmatic genius of the Constitution, the preservation of which many still saw as the raison d’etre of the great war. No, he said, looking across one of history’s bloodiest battlefields, this was about lifting our sights toward the “unfinished work” of a “new birth of freedom.” That was audacity, at a time of crisis. Obama, prematurely being compared to the greatest of our presidents, has shown extra-ordinary rhetorical capacities, especially in his speech about race. But the demands going forward are sure to rise exponentially. Words matter. Obama could change the world with his. This book provides both example and inspiration of how it was once done, and might be again.
Comparisons to Lincoln notwithstanding, Obama will be left to manage a “team of rivals” without the depth of crisis Lincoln employed to compel consensus among his obstreperous gang. The key for Obama will be using the force of his personality to manage debate that’s both fierce and productive, at the very highest levels. For that, I’d offer Beyond Human Scale, by Eli Ginzberg and George Vojta. It was published without fanfare in 1985, and has become a cult classic among the “process people,” those who’ve worked furiously in recent decades to consider and reconsider ways large organizations, both public and private, might be managed more effectively. Their axiom, that “good process creates good outcomes,” was shaped by Columbia Professor Ginzberg, who died in 2002 at the age of ninety-one, after having advised eight presidents, starting with FDR, on everything from health care to military furloughs. In Beyond Human Scale, he and the management consultant George Vojta run though a primer on how decisionmakers can guard against being misinformed or misled. Especially important: the careful placement of honest brokers who can get bad news to the boss without suffering ill effects (in fact, they should be rewarded). Page after page is jammed with trenchant fare — everything from how a cushion of financial reserves often enables a CEO to “avoid making hard decisions when problems first appear” to how, for a president, it generally takes a war to “reveal weaknesses in the military.” With tough decisions on the government’s ownership, or bailout, of vast dysfunctional corporations — and two ongoing wars — Obama and his team will have to construct a sterling decisionmaking system. And then they’ll have to recalibrate and fine-tune it for every oncoming crisis.